January 26, 2021
By Ross Purnell
This story was originally titled “Underwader Wear: Managing Moisture to Stay Dry and Comfortable Through All Seasons.” It appeared in the 2020 Gear Guide issue of Fly Fisherman.
And by “underwear” I’m not talking about your Fruit of the Loom tighty-whities or the lacy stuff from Victoria’s Secret—I’m talking about the performance sportswear you should be wearing under your waders to keep you comfortable and catching fish all day. Whether you’re fishing on a day that is 100 degrees or 30 degrees F., you will likely wear the same pair of waders, but what you wear under it will make all the difference in how the waders perform, how comfortable you feel, and how long you stay out there chasing “the big one.”
When it’s hot and you are drifting in a boat, you might plan to stay in the boat. Maybe you are fishing a small stream where you stay mostly on shore, and when you cross it’s only knee deep. These are both good times to wet wade. You don’t really need waders. However, there are many other instances when it’s hot outside, and you’ll need to stand in cold water for extended periods of time.
It can be hot in the Gunnison Gorge during Salmonfly season, but the water is ice cold. On the Deschutes in August, steelheaders wade waist deep to extend their backcasts. And in Cheesman Canyon in the summer, you walk miles for the pleasure of wading deep in the icy tailwater river. Also in the West there can be huge temperature swings in very short time periods. It might be wet-wading temperature when you walk down that access trail, but four hours later there could be a 40-degree temperature swing with a hailstorm thrown in for good measure. If you layer correctly with breathable waders in the summer, they can help you deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
When you expect to see hot temps, don’t wear shorts under your waders. Bare skin under waders can lead to chafing, and it doesn’t help to keep you dry and cool.
Breathable waders are effective at passing moisture vapor from the interior to the outside, but liquid sweat just pools on the inside. In the summer, you need a tight, stretchy synthetic layer that will quickly spread the liquid thinly across thousands of tiny little wicking fibers. This distribution combined with your body heat turns your liquid sweat into water vapor, and transports it quickly to the outside of the waders so that you feel dry, not wet and clammy. Some examples of these types are Patagonia Capilene Midweight (tops & bottoms), and Simms Lightweight Core (tops & bottoms). Both are polyester; Patagonia’s Capilene is recycled polyester made from plastic bottles and returned clothing. Any type of athletic tights will work as well—there are reasons why football players and basketball players wear this type of stuff: because its spreads and dissipates moisture. Your requirements are much the same . . . if you want to wear Nike or Under Armour base layers, go for it! The only performance difference is that stuff made for under waders usually has an antimicrobial treatment to prevent the stink factor from reaching ungodly levels. Running tights get worn for an hour and then thrown in the wash. Your wading base layers get worn all day, sometimes for many days in a row, and the antimicrobial treatments make a big difference.
Merino wool is a high-performing natural fiber that works well for fishing base layers. Merino wool has smaller, softer fibers than other wool types, and natural lanolin makes it hydrophobic, so it transports moisture away from your skin very effectively. And wool is naturally antibacterial. Lanolin is a wax produced by the sheep’s glands meant to protect the wool and the skin from rain.
When it’s cold outside you’ll need to layer up under your waders, but that doesn’t wearing your jeans or a pair of insulated snow pants. Don’t wear denim or anything cotton. That’s the first rule of winter for any outdoor pursuit, and it’s especially important when you’re trying to transport moisture vapor. Cotton does one thing well, and that’s trap and hold moisture, so don’t wear it.
Your layering system in the winter needs to spread moisture and turn liquid sweat into vapor just like it does in the summer, so you need to start with exactly the same tight, stretchy synthetic base layers that you use in the summer. Your insulation layer(s) should not be next to your skin; they work in tandem with your base layers to manage your perspiration and keep you warm.
You can’t just wear ski pants or snow pants under your waders for insulation as they have they own shell material, and they aren’t designed for this task. You need a fishing-specific base layer that is not bulky, works with your base layer to transfer moisture from your skin to the outside, and it should be stretchy and nonbinding, otherwise your mobility will be greatly reduced. You don’t want to be the Michelin Man out there, otherwise you’ll fall getting in/out of the boat, stepping over logs, or navigating rocks in the river. Staying warm also requires staying nimble. Nobody stays warm if they fall in the river.
Also, when I’m talking about a base layer and an insulation layer, I don’t just mean from the waist down. Your upper body needs the same considerations and should have a base layer and a stretchy insulation layer to deal with the perspiration under your waders from the waist up. Your armpits produce a lot of sweat, and you need to manage that moisture the same way. If you don’t you’ll produce heat and sweat while you exert yourself, and then you’ll freeze when you are standing in cold water motionless.
Simms ExStream Bicomp Hoody
The problem with bulky jackets is that when you tuck them inside your waders, you look like a stuffed sausage, and you’ve got too much insulation where you don’t need it. The new Simms ExStream BiComp Hoody has a low-bulk Karuishi stretch fleece fabric with kangaroo handwarmer pockets and a locking drawcord in the lower hem. Just pull the drawstring tight, and the thin stretchy portion sits down inside your waders. The upper/outer (available in bronze or admiral blue) is made from a water-shedding stitchless quilted 20-denier ripstop nylon with a 60-gram fill of PrimaLoft Silver Thermoplume with Cross Core insulation (35% recycled content). The gusseted arm panels that extend continuously from the thumb loops at the wrist to the armpit and then to the waist are also made from Karuishi stretch fleece, giving you range of motion just where you need it, and water-resistant, warm insulation in the areas that are exposed to the elements. $200 | simmsfishing.com
Orvis Pro Insulated Jacket
When you’re exerting yourself, you get hot in specific places, and when you’re casting, you need your jacket to stretch in specific places. That’s why Orvis’s new body-mapped Pro Insulated Jacket uses 80-gram Polartec Alpha for the side panels and under the arms, and 80-gram PrimaLoft Gold Active for the rest of the jacket. Polartec Alpha (55% recycled content) was designed for U.S. Special Forces teams to regulate body heat and moisture under the rigorous start-and-stop conditions of combat, while the Primaloft Gold Active (45% recycled content) delivers four-way stretch, breathability, water resistance, and ridiculous packability—this whole jacket folds into the pouch of the interior zippered chest pocket. Working in conjunction with the flexible insulation, the outer shell is a 20-denier stretch nylon ripstop fabric for a non-restricting jacket that lets you double-haul, row, paddle, and stay warm in the most demanding conditions. The nylon has a durable water repellent (DWR) finish on the exterior and an acrylic coating on the interior of the shell that makes the shell highly wind-resistant. The jacket has a trim cut to fit inside your waders in deep wading conditions, a drawstring waist cord, fleece-lined handwarmer pockets, a zippered chest pocket that fits one fly box, and an internal zippered security pocket that doubles as a stuff sack. $200 | orvis.com
Patagonia Tough Puff
When it’s cold enough to wear insulation under your waders, the evenings are long. It’s a perfect time of year to have a cocktail at the lodge, go to a dive bar for a beer, socialize around a campfire, or get something to eat with your friends. You don’t want to do all that wearing pants that look like underwear. With Patagonia Tough Puff Pants, you can strip off your waders and be ready for whatever après activity comes next. These ready-for-anything pants have 60-gram FullRange polyester (40% recycled) stretch insulation for breathability, warmth, and freedom of motion. It’s the same stretchy, durable fabric and stretch insulation as Patagonia’s Tough Puff Hoody, and it stays warm even when it’s wet. The mechanical stretch polyester shell (46% recycled) has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish, a gusseted crotch, articulated knees, and tapered ankles. They have an adjustable waist strap, zippered fly, and button closure; two front pockets, one zippered back pocket. Not only do they look good, they feel like a comfortable pair of pants with a soft 100% polyester lining and comfortable waistband. $200 | patagonia.com
Orvis Pro Underwader Pants
Cold fishing conditions require proper layering to keep you comfortable and fishing longer. I recently field-tested the Orvis PRO Underwader pants on New York’s Salmon River during an unusually chilly early fall weekend. The morning temperature of 29 degrees made for a frosty start, with highs in the low 50s during the afternoon. I wore them with a knee-length light Merino wool base layer short and mid-weight Merino wool socks. The interior high-pile fleece retains a lot of body heat. These pants kept me toasty, so much so that at midday I had to open the zippered mesh side vents on the outside of the upper thigh to cool off. These pants are built for cold-weather fishing. The four-way DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coated exterior fabric stretches and flexes while being durable and soft. I had no issues navigating logs and large rocks, or running downriver after a big fish. The integrated belt loops on a fully elastic waistband made for an exact fit, while the athletic cut didn’t allow for any bunching. The stirrups were burly yet comfortable, with little flex, which kept my pant legs down while I pulled on my waders. Stretch panels near the ankles allowed my feet to easily slip into my waders and kept the bulk down so my wading boots tightened well. Two fleece-lined front pockets and a zippered rear security pocket are nice touches when wearing these on the riverbank. They are available in five sizes, all with a 31-inch inseam.- Dennis Pastucha $140 | orvis.com
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.